How to explore Bodh Gaya – A personal account

Bodh Gaya, Bihar is – without a shadow of doubt – the holiest site for adherents of Buddhism all over the world. Think along the lines of Jerusalem for Jews or Mecca for Muslims. On my recent trip to my hometown Patna, I wanted to explore Bodh Gaya. It was long overdue after years of dilly-dallying. I was born in the state and spent most early life here. The holy site is situated a paltry 125 kilometers from the capital city.

‘What a travesty that you’ve never been there in your thirty years of existence’, I sometimes asked myself.

Well, in my defense, I wasn’t overtly spiritual for the first 30 years of my existence. And, moreover, trips like these are pre-ordained, aren’t they?

On this trip home though, I was really up for it.

Where is Bodh Gaya?

The ancient site of Bodh Gaya, its various Monasteries, and the sagacious Bodhi tree abuts the city of Gaya. It is the 2nd largest city in the state of Bihar. And, it is a typical Bihari city. Well, let us just say, a typical Indian city. It is haphazard, loud and smoky. The deadly triumvirate of noise, air and water pollution runs rampant. The air quality during the winter months is squalid.

Yes – it is NOT just Delhi that gets enshrouded by a coat of smog.

The traffic on the street tends to self-disorganize for no reason other than commuter indifference and indiscipline. It typically takes several moments of collective agony before sense begins to prevail. The traffic there-after tends to painstakingly self-organize.

Anyway, getting to this ancient town is straight-forward. If you want to explore Bodh Gaya, you can take a bus or a train from pretty much anywhere in Bihar. As a matter of fact, you can even catch a long-distance train from places like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata quite easily. The connectivity between Gaya and Varanasi (another famous spot on the Buddhist circuit, refer Sarnath) is frequent.

Now – bear in mind that this is STILL among the most backwards and under-developed parts of India. So, if you are traveling by road on NH-22, brace yourself for a backbreaking journey on terrible roads. In the interest of fairness, I will point out a major overhaul of the road infrastructure was underway when I visited. Still, I can’t help but wonder why it has taken so long for the authorities to start constructing semi decent roads to such a prominent religious site.

A little bit of history

Siddhartha Gautama (aka, Buddha) attained his enlightenment under the shade of a sagacious tree (aka, the Bodhi Tree) right here in Bodh Gaya.

Hence, the nomenclature of the town.

That spot, the famous tree, and its ample shade is the cradle in which Buddhism was born. Successive kings and rulers of India (most notably Asoka – the Great) spread the gospel of Buddha’s teachings not only across the vast Indian sub-continent but as far as Afghanistan, Mongolia, China, South East Asia. In fact, it is believed some of Asoka’s emissaries traveled as far as the Polynesian islands. This quaint little town of Bodh Gaya – often hailed as an oasis in the middle of urban chaos’ – attracts adherents of the faith from all over Asia.

The spread of Buddhism from ancient India to all corners of Asia.
The spread of Buddhism from ancient India to all corners of Asia. (Courtesy: sites.google.com)

Best way to Explore Bodh Gaya

The temple town of Bodh Gaya has one main street flanked and adorned by numerous monasteries. There are dozens of souvenir shops, gazillion prayer flags, provision stores and food joints all along this road. You can even find some stylish cafes with WiFi, a couple of lavish looking hotels, yoga camps, shops selling Ayurveda concoctions and even a few artsy backpacker hostels.

 Now, of course, if you want to explore Bodh Gaya you can walk along this road & try to soak in the culture. But, let me caution you once again – there are either no side-walks, or they have been usurped by hawkers. Alas, there is also persistent and habitual honking to contend with.

So yes, stroll you can. But, most likely, it is NOT going to be the quaint walk you imagine.

Another important thing – if you are driving, good luck trying to find a decent spot to park your car. Yes, we – Indians – can build astonishing temples and museums, but a modern/automated/elevated parking lot is usually way too much for us to visualize and execute.

The Bihar Government has introduced e-rickshaws as a means of reducing pollution and easing traffic in the area. A big thumbs up from me on that initiative. The only problem is that nearly half a dozen e-rickshaw drivers swooped in on me like vultures the moment I stepped out of my car. I spoke with a few of them. To be fair, they were all extremely well mannered. Shortly thereafter, I stuck a deal with one of them. The driver agreed to charge Rs. 300 (~5$) to show all the monasteries, including the Mahabodhi Temple.

Fair enough, I figured. We hopped on and silently sped along towards the main temple complex.

The e-rickshaw driver spent over 2 hours with me. First, he dropped me off at the entrance to the Mahabodhi Temple – main site and the abode of the Bodhi Tree. There-after, he drove around the narrow alleyways and showed me all the other famous Monasteries including (but not limited to) the Japanese Monastery, the Thai Temple, Cambodian Monastery, Vietnamese Temple and the Burmese Monastery.

There is a Giant Buddha statue situated on one of the adjoining streets. It was around 5 PM on a late November evening.The sun was just about retiring for the day, splattering stunning hues all over the blue skies. This instantly brought about a sense of surreal. At least, for a precious few seconds before someone from the swarm of tourists jolted me from behind in their quest for the ultimate selfie.

Explore Bodh Gaya - The giant Buddha Statue in Bodh Gaya against the backdrop of a setting sun.
The giant Buddha Statue in Bodh Gaya against the backdrop of a setting sun.

I was a little pressed for time, so I skipped over the archaeological museum (it has good reviews!). Instead, I asked my driver to drop me off at the Tibetan Refugee Market where I wandered for a while before hastily overpaying for a bronze Buddha statue.

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple

The Mahabodhi Temple (meaning, Temple of Awakening) is the main complex in Bodh Gaya – the epicenter for all the religious goodness in here. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and its main temple dome towers over 50 meters. The exterior is adorned with intricate rock carvings. The overall architecture of the temple seems to be a cross-over between a Hindu Temple and Buddhist Pagoda.

You ought to dedicate the bulk of your time inside the confines the Mahabodhi Temple while you explore Bodh Gaya . A word of advice here – if you intend to pray in there, I suggest you keep it short and breezy. Owing to the high number of daily visitors, one is only allowed a brief amount of time inside the sanctum sanctorum. Before you get too immersed in your prayers and offerings, someone will most likely whisk you away.  

The line MUST keep moving. That is the thumb rule of pilgrimage.

Either way, personally for me, the best part lies outside the sanctum sanctorum. I headed towards the spot where the gargantuan Bodhi Tree stands tall. It is an ancient fig tree which has endured the test of time.  As I gazed, it almost felt as if this tree was the worthiest challenger there could ever be to the concept of mortality.

Aside from its timelessness and significance, shade of the Bodhi Tree provides ideal respite from the heat. You can sit alongside hundreds of monks immersed in their practice and give meditation a crack yourself. And if that is not your cup of tea, just sit still, and try not letting your imagination run amok for a few minutes.

No matter what you do – please DON’T talk loudly. Some of the monks travel thousands of kilometers to come here and meditate. The last thing they want is to listen to small talk.

Before I wrap this up – I wanted to point out a couple of things real quick. First and foremost, don’t be surprised to go through multiple security checkpoints in order to get inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex. I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point out that the security personnel I encountered during my visit were gracious and delightful.

Secondly, you are strictly forbidden from carrying anything inside the temple – not even your cellphone. Especially not your cellphone. The airport like stringent security measures are totally understandable after the bombings in 2013.  Fortunately, the government has made appropriate arrangements for depositing your belongings free of cost outside the main entrance.

Overall, the Bodh Gaya experience is like life itself. It is a combination of humanity’s best and worst expressions bundled together. It is not as if the Government of Bihar hasn’t done anything since Independence to make this revered site more accessible to pilgrims and tourists. But, it is also equally true that this site of immeasurable cultural and religious history deserves much, much more.

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